Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Fire Mountains of the Islands

Fire Mountains of the Islands: A History of Volcanic Eruptions and Disaster Management in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands

R. Wally Johnson
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: ANU Press
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Fire Mountains of the Islands
    Book Description:

    Volcanic eruptions have killed thousands of people and damaged homes, villages, infrastructure, subsistence gardens, and hunting and fishing grounds in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The central business district of a town was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the case of Rabaul in 1994. Volcanic disasters litter not only the recent written history of both countries—particularly Papua New Guinea—but are recorded in traditional stories as well. Furthermore, evidence for disastrous volcanic eruptions many times greater than any witnessed in historical times is to be found in the geological record. Volcanic risk is greater today than at any time previously because of larger, mainly sedentary populations on or near volcanoes in both countries. An attempt is made in this book to review what is known about past volcanic eruptions and disasters with a view to determining how best volcanic risk can be reduced today in this tectonically complex and volcanically threatening region.

    eISBN: 978-1-922144-23-2
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xvii-xx)
    R.W. Johnson

    The famous British geologist, Arthur Holmes, was greatly admired by my geology teacher at Gateshead Grammar School on Tyneside in the north-east of England. This was not just because Holmes was author of the definitive textbookPrinciples of Physical Geology(1944) that we used in class in the late 1950s, but also because Holmes was a local lad, a Tynesider, and therefore a Geordie. Holmes’ geological researches — including determining the age of the Earth using the principles of radioactivity — propelled him to international fame, if not geological immortality.

    Holmes as a boy lived at 19 Primrose Hill, Low Fell — the...

  6. Acknowledgements and Sources
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  7. Volcano Names and Totals
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  8. 1. Burning Islands and Dampier’s Voyage: 1700
    (pp. 1-20)

    William Dampier, former buccaneer, rounds the north-western Bird’s Head Peninsula of New Guinea Island in a British Royal Navy ‘fifth-rater’, theRoebuckat the beginning of a new century in 1700. He will subsequently record the presence of five ‘burning’ islands or mountains — volcanoes — in the New Guinea region, a not inconsiderable achievement. Indeed, this is something to envy if they were all ‘burning’ in full eruption. Dampier will not see the Bird’s ‘tail’ in the south-east where there are active volcanoes, including one later called Lamington that would produce a major disaster in 1951. Nor will he enter the...

  9. 2. Volcano Sightings by European Navigators: 1528–1870
    (pp. 21-38)

    The Bible contains the following information:

    And King Solomon made a navy of ships … And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. And they came to Ophir, and fetched thence gold, four hundred and twenty talents, and brought it to King Solomon.¹

    Discovering the location of Ophir and its gold was one of the factors that drove the Spanish to explore the south-west Pacific, despite both the brevity of the Bible’s reference to Ophir and the absence of any hints to its actual location. The belief in...

  10. 3. European Intruders and the 1878 Rabaul Eruption: 1870–1883
    (pp. 39-62)

    The landscape surrounding the vast bay at Rabaul had long been occupied by Melanesian people when the British naval surveyors Captain C.H. Simpson and Lieutenant W.F.A. Greet entered the bay on 17 July 1872, naming it after their vessel, HMSBlanche. The Melanesians of the Rabaul area are known today as the Tolai, a populous group made up of different matrilineal descent lines orvunatarai.¹ They had migrated there at different but undated times from New Ireland, some through the Duke of York Islands, had settled successfully by taking agricultural advantage of the rich soils of Rabaul’s volcanoes, and are...

  11. 4. Volcanic Events of the German Era: 1884–1914
    (pp. 63-84)

    A diverse mix of new Europeans became established in the St Georges Channel area in the years following the 1878 eruption at Rabaul. Roman Catholic missionaries, for example, arrived in 1882, gaining a mission foothold in competition with the Methodists, and Ludwig Couppé came later as bishop, strengthening the Catholic base at Vunapope at present-day Kokopo. Trader Thomas Farrell and his partner, Emma Coe, arrived there too from Samoa, acquiring large tracts of land from the Tolai, and eventually creating a successful plantation economy and great personal wealth for the legendary ‘Queen Emma’. German traders in general — particularly Eduard Hernsheim...

  12. 5. Australian Colonists and the Volcanoes of Mainland New Guinea: 1849–1938
    (pp. 85-102)

    Melanesians have occupied the interior of New Guinea Island probably for more than 30,000 years, but nineteenth century Europeans regarded it asterra incognita. Many visiting Europeans would have doubted why anyone would want to live in such rugged, intimidating, and inhospitable mountainous terrain. Ridge after ridge ascends steeply into the impenetrable clouds of the central, forest-covered mountain ranges, so abruptly that possibly habitable valleys are invisible from the coast. Some access to the base of the high ranges is afforded by sailing up the island’s large rivers — the Sepik and Ramu in the north and the Fly/Strickland in the...

  13. 6. Calderas, Ignimbrites and the 1937 Eruption at Rabaul: 1914–1940
    (pp. 103-128)

    Australian military forces occupied Rabaul and ruled the Old Protectorate of German New Guinea for almost seven years following a short skirmish near Bitapaka in 1914. Rabaul became a battle-deprived backwater of the First World War when thousands were dying at Gallipoli and in the trenches on the Western Front. Garrison life for the Australians in New Guinea, wrote one war historian, ‘was a still lagoon, with the surf beating outside’.¹ The Australians slipped readily into the ruling upper layer of the racially segregated society that had been created by the Germans in Rabaul. Immigrant Chinese, Malays, Ambonese, and also...

  14. 7. Eruptions during the Pacific War and Postwar Recovery: 1941–1950
    (pp. 129-148)

    Concerns expressed in early 1941 about future volcanic activity at Rabaul were to a large extent set aside by the greater anxiety of a likely war in the Pacific. The Second World War had broken out in Europe in September 1939, and Japan in 1941 was expanding militarily in the western Pacific and eastern and southeast Asian regions. Nevertheless, a small but vulnerable Australian garrison, Lark Force, was dispatched to Rabaul in March–April 1941.¹ It was made up largely of soldiers of the 2/22nd Battalion of the 23rd Brigade, 8th Division, 2nd Australian Imperial Force. The battalion was supplemented...

  15. 8. Disaster at Lamington: 1951–1952
    (pp. 149-178)

    We have a volcano!This is the exclamatory statement that Margaret or ‘Peggy’ de Bibra wrote down after breakfast on the morning of the Lamington catastrophe on Sunday 21 January 1951.¹ Miss de Bibra was the principal of Martyrs’ Memorial School at the Anglican Christian Mission at Sangara on the northern flank of Mount Lamington, less than two kilometres downslope from the Territory’s government headquarters for the Northern District at Higaturu. Sangara and Higaturu were only 10–12 kilometres from the summit of the mountain, which rose as an impressive and scenic backdrop to almost 1,800 metres above sea level....

  16. 9. Tony Taylor and an Eruption Time Cluster: 1951–1966
    (pp. 179-206)

    The Lamington disaster of January 1951 had an immediate impact on public and Administration attitudes towards volcanic threats in the Territory, including fears of other volcanoes soon breaking out in concert with Lamington. Such immediate responses might seem in hindsight to be based on an understandable nervousness following the Lamington tragedy, but good reasons emerged for such public anxiety. This is because the seven-year period from 1951 to 1957 turned out to be another example of a ‘pulse’ or volcanic time cluster of eruptions in Near Oceania, one in which eight or nine different volcanoes became active. Four of these...

  17. 10. Plate Tectonics and False Alarms: 1960–1972
    (pp. 207-230)

    Remarkable scientific and technological achievements in the 1960s had a major impact on understanding the nature of the volcanoes in Near Oceania. Satellites were being launched — the pioneering Russian Sputnik as early as 1957 — at the competitive Cold War frontier of space travel, so initiating development of both space-borne, earth-observing platforms and satellite communication systems and therefore opportunities for the future monitoring of volcanoes from space. Mainframe computers were being mainstreamed in scientific establishments generally. Telecommunications technology was advancing, too, including the development of ways to convert earthquake vibrations — which, up until then, had been transferred mechanically to the paper...

  18. 11. Cooke-Ravian and a Volcanic Resurgence: 1971–1979
    (pp. 231-254)

    Bureau of Mineral Resources (BMR) geophysicist R.J.S. ‘Rob’ Cooke, an Australian, joined Rabaul Volcanological Observatory (RVO) in mid-1971. He had for many years been involved with routine geophysical surveys measuring the gravity fields of parts of Australia and Antarctica, and the shift into practical volcanology was an exciting and dramatic career change. Cooke arrived at Rabaul in time to experience the two major, north Solomon Sea earthquakes in July 1971, and to witness the damage from the resulting tsunamis in the harbour at Rabaul. Cooke developed a passion during his career for volcanology and particularly for unearthing historical documents on...

  19. 12. Eruption Alert at Rabaul Caldera: 1971–1994
    (pp. 255-282)

    Villagers living near the south-eastern end of Matupit Island, Rabaul, were by 1970–1971 aware that nearby coastal cliffs had encroached perilously close towards their homes as a result of sea-wave erosion. Their concerns were alleviated after 1971, however, when a new beach began to form at the foot of the pumice cliffs which gradually became stranded inland. The south-eastern end of the island was rising episodically, following the two, major, Solomon Sea earthquakes that had shaken Rabaul in July 1971. Rabaul Volcanological Observatory (RVO) staff led by Rob Cooke began measuring the amount of ground uplift in 1973 using...

  20. 13. Eruptions at Rabaul: 1994–1999
    (pp. 283-310)

    Independence Day celebrations for the 19th national birthday of Papua New Guinea were interrupted by earthquake activity over the weekend in Rabaul beginning at 2.50–2.51 am on Sunday 18 September 1994. Two earthquakes about 40 seconds apart — one near Tavurvur the other near Vulcan — were felt strongly throughout the harbour area. Aftershocks and ground shaking continued, particularly in the Vulcan area. Rabaul Volcanological Observatory (RVO) volcanologists suspected, for about 12 hours, that the earthquake activity represented another ‘seismic swarm’, similar to many of those experienced in Rabaul during the 1970s and 1980s. The ground shaking continued and, by Sunday...

  21. 14. Eruptions of the Early Twenty-first Century: 1998–2008
    (pp. 311-340)

    The year 2000 marked the 300th anniversary of William Dampier’s ‘volcanological voyage’ through the Near Oceania region, when eruptions and volcanoes were described in greater detail than in any of the known records of the earlier Spanish and Dutch explorers. The three centuries had started during the European Enlightenment with visions of a happier, more rational and more informed world following the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. Those three centuries concluded in the last few decades of the twentieth century with technological advances that would have been unimaginable to the early ‘natural philosophers’ and secular humanists of the Enlightenment....

  22. 15. Reassessing Volcanic Risk in the North-eastern Gazelle Peninsula: 2000–2012
    (pp. 341-358)

    Rabaul town celebrated its centenary in 2010. The 100 years that have passed since German colonists established the town on Simpson Harbour in 1910, after draining the mangrove swamps, is brief in the context of archaeological and geological time frames. Yet the story is intimately interwoven with, and is a recurrent theme of, the larger history of volcanic disasters in Near Oceania, because of the drama of its high-risk location. The extraordinary history of Rabaul town is, of course, punctuated not only by the relatively small eruptions of 1937–1943 and the ongoing eruptive activity that started in 1994, but...

  23. 16. Historical Analysis and Volcanic Disaster-Risk Reduction
    (pp. 359-380)

    Documented histories are complex time series, punctuated by major events that commonly define turning points. This history of volcanic eruptions and disaster management is no different. Historical trends also have impetus and trajectories, which define future challenges and even, on the basis of lessons learnt from history, ways to deal with them.

    Slicing seamless narratives into time sectors hardly acknowledges the continuities of histories and the long-lived interdependencies of the many factors defining them, but here there is value in drawing together some key threads, first, in recognising five periods or phases which, spliced end-to-end, define a framework of recorded...

  24. An Epilogue
    (pp. 381-382)

    Melanesian tradition and scientific accuracy are combined comfortably in this artwork by the late Cecil King Wungi, depicting the internal architecture of a volcano. The image was published originally in 1976 on the cover of a handbook for the Geology Department, University of Papua New Guinea. Wungi worked as a laboratory technician in the department during the 1970s....

  25. Appendix: Acronyms and Glossaries
    (pp. 383-386)
  26. Index
    (pp. 387-392)